Literary Hub

The Year I Stopped Reading White People

The year I turned 25, I had a bit of an identity crisis. My family and I emigrated from the Philippines to the States when I was 12 years old, which made 25 the year that I’d lived more of my life here than there. Until then, I’d always considered myself more Filipino than American. But was I American now? Was I Filipino still? If so, by how much?

I asked a lot of questions of myself then, as the two cultures and continents inside me moved against each other like tectonic plates ready to quake. This self-examination eventually landed on my writing life. I’d been making up stories for as long as I could remember. I’d graduated with my degree in English, with a novel in hand I’d finished writing my senior year (which thank God will never see the light of day). And I’d finished a handful of stories in my post-college years too. But in that season of self-reflection, I finally considered a reality that I’d only been dully aware of: all the characters in all of my stories were white.

I’d spoken with a good friend about this over coffee once, but concluded the conversation with a shrug and an oh well. I didn’t think it was a problem: all of my stories were about white people, but why shouldn’t they be? That’s what literature was.

But asking myself questions about how American or how Filipino I was finally forced a confrontation.

*

As a boy growing up in Manila, I learned to read “real” books from my family’s shelves of Great Illustrated Classics—Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, Heidi. My Filipino parents had me reading C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. High school in America didn’t offer much different, although my reading list was accented here and there by Beloved and Cry, The Beloved Country.

In college, I plowed through the Norton Anthology, and then went on to Dickens, Woolf, Pound, Eliot. Aside from Frederick Douglass and the week set aside for the Harlem Renaissance (which, I shamefully admit, I found uninteresting then), my classes were filled with the words of white writers, taught by white professors, and attended by white classmates. I bought into the anglophile tradition along with my other English-major friends. I did the summer abroad program in England, visited the sites of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the rest. We pilgrimaged to the graves of our Christian literary heroes, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (the school was evangelically affiliated), and we relished the fish and chips at the Eagle and the Child where they’d often met. (It’s only in writing this piece that I realize—aside from two biracial peers—I was the only one of our group of 33 who wasn’t white.)

“For years then, my attempts at stories involved white people doing white people things; or as I thought of it, people doing people things.”

I enjoyed it all, learning the great and respectable canon. If I wanted to write, I would write like them. It never occurred to me that I was allowed to write stories that weren’t centered on white characters—that such stories could exist and be called literature.

*

Once, when I was nine, I sat on the floor of the bedroom I shared with my brother and sister, turning a globe slowly in my hands. I asked my brother then if people in the United States knew what the Philippines was, let alone where it was on a map. (This was years before I even imagined my parents would move us across the Pacific.) In college, I found that a close friend of mine, with whom I’d spent much of those four undergraduate years, could not locate my home country on a globe. “I knew you were somewhere near Japan…” she said.

My country’s irrelevance made sense to me. And so why should I ever tell a story that no one could relate to? For years then, my attempts at stories involved white people doing white people things; or as I thought of it, people doing people things.

*

I was 26 when I read a review of Mia Alvar’s In the Country. A collection of stories about Filipinos and Filipinas in the diaspora. But an American literary work, published by Americans, and presumably read by Americans too. It made little sense to me that such a thing could exist. I ordered it immediately.

In her stories, Alvar wrote about sari-sari stores, OFWs, the Aquinos. Sometimes, she used Tagalog words! I felt excited, known. But questions nagged at me as I read. Who would read this but someone like me? And worse: is this even allowed?

My thinking strikes me as naïve now, but more than that, as sad. There are likely people more fortunate than I who wouldn’t have thought to ask such questions. Yet there may be those who ask them still.

I read In the Country in the middle of MFA application season, so it was a risky time to change things up with my writing. Despite the high stakes, I tried for the first time to write a story with a Filipina protagonist. I tossed a story about a small white American town out of my portfolio to make room. The new piece was about a Filipina woman who, wouldn’t you know it, was born in Manila, but moved to California when she was a child.

Those 25 pages had so much of me in them. I thought this a flaw at first, but realize now that that was its gift. I wrote foods and names and places from my own life that I never thought could enter my writing. The whole process rendered me vulnerable but that’s what made it all the more precious. I simply cared more. And how nice a feeling to write a story I could care about.

*

Good literature is good literature and good scholarship is good scholarship, I used to think. I actually argued with friends against affirmative action and their overvaluing of representation. But Alvar rocked me. A million works by a million white authors couldn’t have made me feel what In the Country had. Soon after reading her book, I made a deal with myself: for one year, I would forbid myself from reading any white, male authors. (I was also engaging then with the intersectionality of gender and race, although there isn’t space here to delve into all that.)

I put down Hornby and Eggers, and I read Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Jhumpa Lahiri, Marjane Satrapi. Like any diet, there was some cheating. I confess I read David Mitchell, excusing myself somehow because he’d lived in Japan, after all. (Cloud Atlas really is a delightful book.)

At the year’s end, I found that reading broadly had expanded my imagination in terms of what and how stories could be told—in terms of what was “allowed.” My own writing changed too. I learned that I could write what I wanted, and knew, and cared about. Even the friend to whom I’d admitted the whiteness of my writing noticed the sharp difference in my new fiction. Apparently, I wrote better when I wrote about the stories, lives, and experiences close to my heart. Who would’ve thought?

*

I read white authors again—I believe I broke the year-long fast with Denis Johnson. But I’m much more intentional now about the books I add to my reading list. I make it a point to read internationally, in particular. I look for stories that take me places I’ve never read before, stories that take me places I have, and stories that anchor me to home. I know now that my writing, and some deep and true part of who I am, depends on it.

A few months ago, I read Elaine Castillo’s America is Not the Heart, which is about a Filipino family’s migration to and life in my own beloved Bay Area. How powerful an experience to read a story like my own. It resonated so much that I couldn’t—didn’t—try to hold back the tears as I read the book in a crowded café. And that was only ten pages in. Books like Castillo’s remind me what a gift it is to find the stories that say you can be unapologetically you. These are books I desperately need. The ones that tell me, when I regrettably forget, that yes, I am allowed.

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